Tory minister rules out discussion of further powers for Holyrood until after 2014

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  By a Newsnet reporter   

The Tories were accused of trying to pull the wool over the eyes of people in Scotland after a senior cabinet minister revealed that more devolution will not even be discussed until after the referendum in 2014.

Speaking at the 45th session of the British Irish Parliamentary Association in Glasgow on Monday, Northern Ireland Secretary Theresa Villiers was asked about the devolution of Air Passenger Duty to Scotland.  

Ms Villiers stated in reply that “any debate about further devolution needs really to wait until after the result of that referendum before decisions can be realistically taken about the possibility of further devolved powers to Scotland”.

Ms Villiers reported to the conference that substantial progress had been made on proposals to devolve control of Corporation Tax to the Northern Irish Assembly, and promised that her department’s findings would be reported to the Prime Minister within the next few weeks.  Devolution of Corporation Tax to Scotland has been ruled out by the Conservatives.  

Theresa Villiers’ comments that even debating further devolution must wait until after the referendum stands in stark contrast to recent press reports that the Tories would move to establish a constitutional convention which would start work before 2014.

The Conservatives have previously made a number of vague and unspecific promises on further devolution for Scotland.  Earlier this year, Prime Minister David Cameron said that he was prepared to “consider” extra powers for the Scottish Parliament, but did not say which powers he had in mind.  

Giving evidence to the Commons political and constitutional reform select committee earlier this month, which is investigating the creation of a convention, Ruth Davidson MSP said that she supported the establishment of a new constitutional convention to examine the devolution settlement.  

In a written submission, the Scottish Tory leader said the “starting point” of the convention should be to established “essential characteristics (which) define the unitary state”, which she felt must include the monarchy, currency, defence, welfare and benefits, and Westminster control of broadcasting.   

“That established,” Ms Davidson continued, “discussions should move to areas which can be sensibly devolved without harming national unity or political stability and with due regard to our shared history and institutions.”

However the new commitment to discussing “areas which can sensibly be devolved” contradicted her pledge during the Scottish Tory leadership election that the Scotland Bill was “a line in the sand” as far as further devolution was concerned.

In a Telegraph report on the development, the newspaper reported that “Conservative insiders” had claimed that the new convention would merely be a “safety valve” in order to provide the UK Govt with cover when challenged during the referendum campaign to specify which additional powers the anti-independence parties are prepared to offer Scotland.

The SNP have siezed on Ms Villiers’ remarks as a demonstration that the Conservatives are not willing to consider or discuss any concrete proposals for extending devolution until after the independence referendum in 2014.  Should Scots vote against independence in the referendum, there will be no political pressure or urgency on the Conservatives – who have historically resisted any attempts to devolve powers to Holyrood – to take action on further devolution.  

During the 1979 Home Rule referendum campaign, senior Conservatives likewise promised to deliver additional powers for Scotland should the Scots vote No.  On the eve of the referendum, former Prime Minister Sir Alec Douglas Home infamously promised Scotland “something better” if they voted against the limited home rule proposals that were then on offer.  

When the Yes vote failed to clear the artificial hurdle set by Labour MPs, the Conservatives refused to countenance any further devolution.

Commenting, SNP MSP Linda Fabiani who chaired the Scotland Bill Committee said:

“Theresa Villiers has let the Tories’ mask slip and has revealed that despite their previous hints, they are not even prepared to debate the prospect of more powers for Scotland.

“There is a severe credibility gap when the anti-independence parties are asking people to vote against an independent Scotland without even tolerating discussion of what their alternative plans might be.

“While the SNP are setting out our vision of what an independent Scotland will look like, it seems the Tories are not prepared to come clean on what will happen to Scotland if it stayed in the UK.

“People in Scotland have long memories and know only too well that the Tories have a previous track record of failing to live up to their promises of more power for Scotland.

“Instead of allowing the progress that has been made by the Scottish Government to be rolled back by the anti-independence parties, only a Yes vote in 2014 will allow Scotland to build on the many things that have been achieved by Scotland’s parliament.”